Immigration and geography
Immigration and geography play a hugely important role in Chinese ancestry. For various reasons, governments have expended considerable resources keeping track of Chinese immigration and emigration. (See Postscript, below.) In the USA, each port of arrival or departure kept records on the Chinese specifically.
Let me say this again: if your Canadian Chinese ancestor passed a border, there are records to search on both sides of that border. Think: border crossings, Chinese Immigration certificates, port arrivals, ships lists and alien immigration files. We Canadians living along the 49th parallel are so used to spending a day in the USA we can forget that it is an international border crossing. Chinese ancestry genealogy can be so hard – don’t miss out on all the places you can look.
About the records
Please note these are records on Ancestry.com or its affiliates. Search the card catalog for FREE but to see the records, you will need to access Ancestry i) at your local library; ii) at a Family History Centre; iii) via your local genealogy society library; or iv) by subscription to Ancestry World Edition.
Before I jump into what’s available, let me first explain that in genealogy, it’s important to understand the limitations of the record sets. What time period does it cover? and Is this the right location for my ancestor? are two questions you should ask yourself before spending time in any record search. In this post, I will give you my Coles Notes versions of what is available. Also, I’ve divided this post into Major Points of Entry and Minor Points of Entry.
I encourage you to read the About section in the lower left of every database. As exciting as it is to find a new record set, there’s no point in looking through it if it doesn’t hold the documents you want.
What is a Case File?
Case Files may contain photos, questionnaires, letters, immigration forms, landing records, and indices. They may be anywere from a few to a few hundred pages. I had the experience of working with US Chinese Case Files in January 2020 – it is absolutely possible to build an entire family tree with ONE Case File.
Major points of entry: Canada
Ports of Victoria and Vancouver, BC, Canada
This database contains 13,000 records which originate from the records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (“INS”), Record Group 85. Look here for Chinese passengers arriving in either Vancouver or Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, and intending to settle in the States. Note the gap in years available, and also be aware that not every year is complete, i.e., 1912 has only January through to June, and 1941 has only the months of January and June.
United States of America
Canada/USA Border: North Dakota & Washington State
Vancouver, BC, Canada; Sumas, WA and Seattle, WA
Portal, North Dakota
This is the database that has proved the most useful to date for my Canadian Chinese ancestry research.
For decades, Washington State was THE point of entry and exit for the flow of Canadian Chinese travelling up and down the Pacific coast. Think of Vancouver and San Francisco as being deeply connected via their Chinese citizens, who may share family, economic, and cultural ties. My mother said that when she was dating, “boys would come up from California, Oregon and Washington every weekend.” If a Chinese boy wanted to marry a Chinese girl in North America, he looked in other Chinese communities. Also, the Vancouver-based Chinese Students Athletics Association soccer team (1920s-1940s) regularly played matches in San Francisco. They went where the audience was, and outside Vancouver, that was San Francisco.
Look in this collection for arrivals of Chinese into the USA from Seattle Washington, 1903–1944; Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 1911–1916 (in transit to U.S.); Sumas, Washington, 1903–1909; and Portal, North Dakota, 1903–1910. Note that this collection is in addition to normal border crossing records for everyone else. See my example below.
San Francisco, CA; El Paso, TX, and Philadelphia, PA
A collection of Case File Indices from San Francisco, CA (1883-1916), and Case Files from El Paso, TX (1892-1915) and Philadelphia, PA (1900-1923). The Case File Indices for San Francisco contains 5566 images of Record Set A3381. The introduction notes that this information is relevant to researchers who have located a court file and are looking for corresponding INS case files.
El Paso, Texas, is a major USA entry point from Mexico. These Case Files concern Chinese who were crossing the border from Mexico into the States. Philadelphia is a port on the US Eastern seaboard. These Case Files concern Chinese entering the country from the Atlantic.
Major points of entry: California
Port of San Francisco
There are 5,000 names in this transcript index, which contains information for Chinese arriving at San Francisco. There are no documents linked – only the file information. It is not necessary to enter a name – you may also search by ship name or Case File No. If you find a match here, you may be able to locate the Case File at the National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”) office in San Francisco.
This is an index of names of Chinese immigrants who arrived in San Francisco, CA from 1884-1940. There are no documents – you may find the name(s), arrival date, box #, case # and the name of the ship.
There are 1122 images in this database of 6 volumes of Chinese who died in California, both USA- and Chinese-born. This was an important file for the INS to counter immigration fraud.
Huge database of digitized images covering 42 years of immigration. Not all months are available for all years, i.e., 1903 is missing Feb-Jun. There is a note warning not all names have been transcribed, meaning searching by going through the records page by page is recommended.
Records of Chinese living in the USA who left and were coming back through San Francisco. You’ll find names, date of arrival, physical descriptions, and the name of the ship. There are 12 reels in this collection, NARA Series M1413, rolls #1-12, spanning 1882 to 1888.
Major ports of entry: Hawaii
There are 10 volumes of ~250 records each, all OCR-searchable, of Chinese immigrants. I didn’t review all of them but they appear to be Chinese imported into Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations: i.e., the Hutchinson Sugar Plant Company, Ewa Plant Company, Onomea Sugar, Makee Sugar, Waianae Plant Company.
This is an index containing a lookup of Case Files. You will find the name and the Case File number here. If you get a hit, use the Case File number to request the Case Files, located here: Pacific Region (San Francisco) of the National Archives and Records Administration, 1000 Commodore Drive, San Bruno, California 94066-2350, phone: (650) 876-9001, fax: (650) 876-0920, e-mail:email@example.com.
This is well worth the time and effort – as noted on Ancestry, Case Files may contain “…correspondence, lists of related cases, transcripts of interrogations, and witness statements. Some files include birth certificates, coaching documents, family history forms, and marriage licenses, and photographs of individuals and families.”
Minor ports of entry: Oregon
Port Townsend, WA and Tacoma, WA
Astoria, OR and Portland, OR
This record set is misleadingly named “Portland” but in actuality contains records for Port Townsend, Tacoma, Astoria and Portland. There are 7 collections in this data set, which I’ll list for you here:
- Chinese admissions: Port Townsend, WA and Tacoma, WA (74 images)
- Chinese applications for admission in Astoria (73 images)
- Chinese applications for admission in Portland (84 images)
- Chinese labor departing and returning to Astoria (291 images)
- Japanese landing books in Portland (121 images) – Not sure why these are in this collection – I’d never have found them if I wasn’t doing a dive into every Chinese collection
- Landing Records (3156 images, 12 reels) – images 6-47 are the index to the records that follow – you definitely want to check these pages first; these may be called “Landing Records” but they read like Case Files
- Returning records (3743 images, 3 reels); images 6-14 are the index; check this first before going on to locate the Returning Record
Minor ports of entry: New York
This is an index containing a lookup of 18,500 Case Files. You will find the name and the Case File number here. If you get a hit, use the Case File number to request the Case Files, located here: Northeast Region (New York City) of the National Archives and Records Administration, 201 Varick Street, New York, NY 10014-4811, phone: (212) 337-1300, fax: (212) 337-1306, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is an index lookup of the staff of the Chinese Customs Service (1875-1948). Not necessarily Chinese – there appears to be nationalites of every seafaring nation – I count 15 groups in all.
Example: A weekend trip to Seattle, 1925
In this example, I’d like to show you how a simple trip could yield 4 genealogical records for Canadian born Chinese. The CUMYOW family is related to the Yip Sang family, and both families lived in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
In June, 1925, Aileen Won CUMYOW (b. 1901, Vancouver, BC) and her brother Harry Won CUMYOW (b. 1895, Vancouver, BC) planned a weekend visit to Seattle. In this example I’ll follow Aileen’s movements. She first applied to the Department of Immigration and Colonization – Chinese Immigration Branch for a permit to leave and reenter the country: a “C.I.#9.” You can find this at Library and Archives Canada.
Harry and Aileen sailed aboard the CPR ship Princess Kathleen from Vancouver to Seattle. You may find them on the ships manifest in the Washington, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1965.
At the border, Aileen and Harry were recorded in the register of Chinese Passenger Arrivals and Disposition, 1903-1944.
In addition, Aileen’s details were recorded in the Immigration and Naturalization Service Records in Seattle, WA. I haven’t had time to go through the process of acquiring her Case File, however, the snippets of information from the index are illuminating.
In this one index, I found her ID#, Box #, Case #, Full name, alias name, beginning date of Case File, ending date of Case File, City of Entry, birthdate, birthplace, date of entry to the USA, name of ship, and the comments: “Section 6 tourist / actress; Chinese showboat company; father Vancouver police interpretor; manifest #13255/1-1.”
…and I got the Case File…!
[EDITED 8 Mar 2020] Thanks to Marisa Louie Lee’s suggestion (see comments below), I acquired a copy of Aileen’s Chinese Case file on Friday, Mar 6th. Here’s a link to the follow up post: Aileen’s Chinese Case file.
Above: Map of the Overseas Chinese worldwide, from a museum in Kaiping, Guangdong, China. Oct 2019.
If I had to pinpoint one silver lining to the difficult history of the Chinese in North America, it would be records like these. For more on this topic, see my 3 part blog series beginning with An Uncertain Homecoming: the Chinese and the fight for civil rights 1939-1967. Alternatively, you might like to read The right to be a Canadian, the story of cousin K. Dock Yip, his law partner Irving Himel, and the Committee to Repeal the Chinese Immigration Act.
Sources (other than Ancestry)
Case File Index by Birth County from NARA at Seattle. NARA CASE FILES FOR CHINESE GENEALOGY. Chinese Family History Group of Souther California. Accessed 26 Feb 2020.
Immigration Arrival Investigation Case Files, 1884 – 1944, National Archives Identifier: 296445. Record Group 85, National Archives Catalog, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787 – 2004.
Immigration and Naturalization Service Records at NARA’s Pacific Region (Seattle) in Seattle, Washington. Chinese Immigration and the Chinese in the United States. National Archives. Accessed 26 Feb 2020.
The Princess Kathleen, Canadian Pacific Ships of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Accessed 28 Feb 2020 on EvergreenFleet.com.
This week my shout out goes to Kelly Summers’s SLIG Course Chinese Ancestry: Research Methods and Sources; to Marisa Louie Lee for her course Immigration and Exclusion in the United States; to my SLIG partner Jerry, and my classmates Linda, Melissa, Alice, Melinda, Greg, Karina, Kim, Tung Ha and Ying Chin, all of whom helped me learn about Case Files. For more on SLIG, see my blog post Top 10 things I learned at SLIG 2020.